Originally, the plan for Jessica McComb was to reach out to the Innovation Wyrkshop at the University of Wyoming for help procuring a couple 3D printers to make personal protective equipment.

It was the height of the pandemic last year, and Innovation Wyrkshop Makerspace Coordinator Tyler Kerr and his students were cranking out PPE for medical center staff throughout the state. McComb, who oversees pre-employment transition services for the state’s vocational rehabilitation program, called Kerr to ask for advice in buying a couple 3D printers, so her students could produce PPE for their own counselors and staff. Kerr, however, offered an alternative solution that has since launched the first makerspace program of its kind in the state.

Instead of just buying a couple 3D printers, Kerr suggested McComb partner with him to create makerspaces throughout the state for the 833 students with disabilities between ages 14 and 21 in the pre-employment transition program. The idea was not only to give these students real-life work experience, but also to give them access to learning the technology while building essential connections within their communities.

Last June, Kerr and McComb submitted a formal proposal to the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation at the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services for $175,000 to build five mini-makerspaces around the state to serve young adults with disabilities. It was granted, and this spring, four brand new makerspace facilities opened in Cheyenne at LCCC’s Ludden Library, at the BOCES buildings in both Pinedale and Evanston, and, most recently, in Rock Springs at Western Wyoming Community College. The fifth makerspace already existed at the Natrona County Library in Casper, and now, McComb is working with the Powell Makerspace to bring them on board, as well.

The need to better prepare students with disabilities for jobs in the workplace was ushered in by federal legislation in 2014 that required the Department of Workforce Services to provide opportunities and pathways for these young adults to find work, as opposed to relying on Social Security. The idea was to provide pathways and training to help them find jobs, even if it’s just part-time a couple hours a week, depending on that person’s particular disability.

Makerspaces were a perfect solution, McComb said, given that they’re community spaces designed for innovation and entrepreneurship by offering access to equipment like 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC routers and mills, woodshop tools and 3D scanners, as well as crafting and sewing equipment.

Along with being free for students, educators and community members of all ages, the spaces will hire up to two pre-ETS students to help run the makerspace facilities while also offering a host of workshops for the students to learn how to use the equipment to build job skills.

“It’s a safe place to learn and grow for these students with disabilities,” McComb said. “We saw this as an excellent opportunity to get these kids hands-on access to emerging technology, so they’ll be able to apply for positions while gaining confidence and experience and being exposed to entrepreneurs and members of the community who come in to use the equipment.”

One of the biggest barriers for individuals with disabilities is that networking piece, McComb added, and getting their hands-on experience.

Students will also have the opportunity to train to get any of the 90-plus digital microcredentials, or badges, offered through the Maker Access Pass, Kerr said, which are aimed at providing pre-ETS students ages 14 to 21 with critical workforce readiness skills that they can note on their resumes.

Among these microcredentials are hardware and software badges in 3D printing, laser cutting, sewing and CAD and other 3D software modeling programs, as well as career skill badges in basic STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) skills, personal and creative skill and other practical skill badges involving tools for younger students like robotics, circuitry and LEGOs. Other professional skill badges will allow the pre-ETS students to receive competencies in critical workplace skills like communication, collaboration and leadership.

To her knowledge, this is the first program of its kind in the nation designed to use makerspaces as bridges to help pre-ETS students gain marketable skills with a direct link to the workforce.

Kerr notes that makerspaces, in general, help students develop the types of skills necessary for what he calls a "fourth industrial revolution," as the world transitions from traditional production-manufacturing to desktop manufacturing.

“The types of emergent technologies typically found in makerspaces are being used across an increasingly diverse range of industries,” he said. “This desktop manufacturing revolution is being driven by technologies like 3D printing and rapid prototyping that were previously only accessible to advanced research labs, but which are now much more affordable, and can easily fit in makerspaces, garages, libraries, workshops and homes.”

These types of technologies can genuinely be applied to a near-limitless number of industries and jobs, Kerr noted, including industrialized farming, sustainable housing, space colonization, automotive and aerospace industries, as well as health and wellness with 3D technologies in bioprinting, orthotics and dentistry.

Locally, at the flagship Innovation Wyrkshop at UW, he’s seen entrepreneurs use the 3D printers and other equipment in a host of projects over the last six months to make custom shoe insoles, functional carbon fiber truck exhaust parts, high-altitude drone hardware, custom prosthetics and assistive devices, science-themed jewelry, biomedical equipment and even museum exhibits.

“Spoiler alert,” he said. “It’s all very possible.”

Beyond all the possibilities for innovating new products and software, one further opportunity that McComb sees for her students is that it also provides them with a safe place to learn not just the technology, but also softer skills like communication and other job skills that can be tricky for students with autism and other disabilities.

“It will help teach them how to be respectful in other environments and to learn and grow a lot of different skills in a place that’s not intimidating,” she said.

The makerspaces locations were chosen from applications all over the state based on accessibility of the space, as well as their enthusiasm for the project, McComb said. Along with the makerspace program, she’s currently working with businesses throughout the state to offer employment opportunities for the pre-ETS students, as well as the University of Wyoming Alumni Association, to act as mentors in their respective career areas.

This summer, there will be a host of workshop opportunities for students, including the five-day birdhouse building class in Riverton, which utilizes all the equipment and was thought of by that makerspace’s in-resident pre-ETS student.

“That’s just one of the very cool ideas,” McComb said.

The plan is to keep the makerspaces free for the community moving forward, with a small charge for materials.

“We have some wonderful plans for next year to expand programs,” McComb said, noting that the goal for this first year was just to get the spaces built and up and running with equipment. “Next year, I am anticipating that these programs will explode.”

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